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Are there any benefits or downsides in feeding the children (around elementary school age) on the schedule of "I'm hungry now" as opposed to scheduled meal times?

This is of course assuming that the nutritional content remains the same, e.g. it's not like they demand a piece of cake 1 hr before lunch and then don't eat soup or veggies because of that.

An example would be: they ask for food 1 hour before usual lunch time and get a fruit salad (that they would otherwise get at snack time) because they aren't yet hungry enough for full lunch. Then they eat lunch 1-2 hrs later. Then then demand what would have been dinner during snack (but eat less of it) and then finish the day at usual dinner time with something light like an extra Yogurt. So they get 1 extra meal, with a mild increase in calories[1], and no decrease in useful nutrition.

My main concern is lack of stable food schedule induced by indulging such demands.

Is that a valid concern as long as I manage the total nutritional input in a sane way?

One of the things that worry me is that during school days they obviously don't have such flexibility for the first 3 meals.


[1] - The specific kids in question have decent metabolism and are stably UNDER the average weight, so extra calories are NOT an issue. Confirmed with their pediatrician.

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Are you using "stable food schedule" to imply "Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner"? –  Noah May 27 at 21:47
    
@Noah - in my personal case, it's Breakfast, Lunch, Snack, Dinner. But the question is generic enough to accomodate the 3 meal schedule as well. –  user3143 May 27 at 21:48
    
I'll post an answer when I get home. Will take a bit to gather the sources and such –  Noah May 27 at 21:59
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Well, I spent the better part of the last two days trying to find definitive research in one manner or another, and every time there was a health claim, it was refuted. The consensus is that it's definitely not nutritionally harmful, but there are no definite benefits. The argument over parenting philosophies re: children "demanding" something vs. obeying schedules is one that I don't want to get into –  Noah May 29 at 14:03

3 Answers 3

I suggest that you let them eat when they are hungry rather than just at the times most people eat. After I started doing this, I rarely get indigestion. YMMV.

You could establish "conventional" meal timings starting on any chosen weekend by giving your kids a super small meal before a major meal at a chosen time. Hopefully, they will be hungry then. IMHO, its good to have a regular rythm - meal time, sleep time, bowel time etc. I have sometimes experienced a bit of acid reflux when I sleep on full stomach. So, I keep a big gap between my meals and sleeptime (day/night) to avoid that. I also suggest that you make moderate exercise a regular part of your kid's routine because it can help your appetite and make you healthy.

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The main benefit is that in our society, people are expected to eat at mealtimes. Sometimes people who eat in class, or at their desk, or on public transit are perceived as being odd or rude for doing so. People who don't eat much when they're offered a meal are also sometimes seen as being odd or rude. Being able to be hungry for a bit, or scaling what you eat at a meal or snack so as to "last until" the next meal, yet have an appropriate appetite then, is a skill your child should learn before they move out of your house. Furthermore, snacks outside the home are generally high fat and high sugar (chocolate bar, bag of chips, donut,...) so that a young adult who relies heavily on snacking as soon as they feel hungry may gain weight in their first few years out of the home.

That said, you have at least ten more years to teach this skill, so you can teach it later if that makes your life easier. A hungry kid is a grumpy kid and torturing your child to teach them something is generally not the best way. When you decide you would like them to be better at "lasting until" a mealtime or "not ruining their appetite" then you should be giving them control over how much they eat. If you make them clean their plate, finish what they took, eat a whole apple at a time, etc then they are not learning how to listen to their own appetite. If you allow only one cookie at a time then again they are not listening to their own appetite. A logical conversation like "there is a pot of stew on the stove that will be ready in an hour. How much do you think you need to eat so that you're not starving hungry that whole hour, but you will eat the stew when it's ready?" is a lot easier with a 6 year old than a three year old.

The other thing is to have a standard snack and for that to be the only thing available between meals. In my house when I was a child, it was a piece of fruit. You can have an apple or an orange or a banana or whatever is in the fruit bowl any time. But you can't have stuff that needs to be made (cooked, sliced, put into a bowl) or that causes dirty dishes. You certainly can't have cookies or chips or icecream in response to being hungry between meals. If I was truly hungry, I would eat fruit. If I was just bored or wanting a treat, I probably would decide to wait for the next meal. The rule was presented as a way to keep my parents from being short order cooks, but it also helped distinguish between being hungry and wanting to eat, while leaving the decision in my own hands.

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I think the largest challenge to "eat when you're hungry" is ensuring the overall quality of nutrition. With the three meals a day schedule, you can largely ensure that lunch and dinner are "protein/fat" meals, and breakfast and snacks are "energy/carb" meals, and make sure all of the right bits are in there across the day.

In an 'eat when you want' schedule, it may be harder to ensure that, in particular as your child is smart, but not necessarily able to adequately balance want versus long term needs. Thus, you may end up shorter in protein and longer in carbs/sweets.

This isn't necessarily a deal breaker, of course. What it means is that you have to have a coherent plan and actively manage what the foods that your child eats, just as you would with regular meals, but likely more actively. You need to either have rules about what foods can be eaten when, or about what kind/amount of nutritional foods must be eaten before sweet/dessert type foods - otherwise you may end up with an imbalance, too much sweets or starches too little proteins.

However, on the flip side, this likely will teach your child better food habits and a better ability to track their own eating and nutrition, which is a very helpful life lesson for the future.

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